Minn. judge at center of power in NFL talks

Published 7:13 am Thursday, March 3, 2011

MINNEAPOLIS — U.S. District Judge David S. Doty enjoys a good cigar and a good argument.

The man in the middle of the epic legal fight between NFL owners and players is an 81-year-old, take-no-bull ex-Marine with a reputation for presiding over a tight but genial courtroom.

For more than two decades, he has been at the forefront of collective bargaining for the nation’s biggest and most popular sport, making him arguably as influential as NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell, Patriots owner Robert Kraft or Colts quarterback Peyton Manning.

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His rulings have rankled the owners, who at times have alleged favoritism toward the players, and the one he issued this week as the collective bargaining talks headed toward Thursday night’s deadline may wind up costing the NFL some $4 billion in TV revenue. But attorneys and others who know him well say Doty is one of the fairest judges around, one who operates a professional proceeding and doesn’t let outside pressures — be they NFL heavyweights or rumors of a contract taken out on his life — influence his decisions.

“I can’t imagine Judge Doty being influenced by any pressure in how he determines a case,” former U.S. Assistant District Attorney Andrew Luger said. “If there was a picture in the Webster’s dictionary next to judge, you would expect to see his face there.”

Doty was the judge during the Freeman McNeil trial in 1992 when a jury ruled in the New York Jets running back’s favor, agreeing that the NFL’s Plan B free agency system violated antitrust laws. That paved the way for the landmark case in 1993 that allowed star defensive end Reggie White, among others, to become free agents, forever changing the way NFL owners do business.

“He has had a significant role in shaping that sport and making it the great national industry that it now is,” said retired state District Judge James Rosenbaum, who has known Doty for more than 35 years.

Rosenbaum said “it would be a cliche to say he’s a cigar-chomping Marine. He loves a cigar because he sits down for 45 minutes to talk and get to the bottom of life’s big issues.”

Like Prince lyrics. Doty once found himself embroiled in a local case of sorts when the Minneapolis rock star was sued by his half-sister, who alleged that Prince used her lyrics in violation of copyright laws. After careful consideration, Doty dismissed the suit, saying Lorna Nelson’s song, “What’s Cooking in This Book,” was not substantially similar to Prince’s song, “U Got the Look.”

Doty declined to be interviewed for this story as did representatives for the league and the players’ union.

“If you come prepared and you conduct yourself in a professional manner, his courtroom is a wonderful place to be,” Luger said. “He has never forgotten what it’s like to be a trial lawyer. So he understands what trial lawyers need to do to represent their clients.”

A lifelong resident of Minneapolis and a University of Minnesota graduate, Doty was a lawyer for 25 years prior to his appointment to the court. Former Sen. Dave Durenberger recommended Doty for the bench in 1987 and he was approved by President Reagan.

“One of the good things about him is he smiles a lot and it isn’t that he takes either himself or his work lightly but he doesn’t take it so seriously that he turns into one of those, ’I’m right under all circumstances’ kind of people,” Durenberger said.

That the NFL’s labor issues are before a veteran judge in Minneapolis dates back years. Player connections to top labor attorneys in Minneapolis led to court filings here and soon after Doty’s appointment he found himself overseeing antitrust cases involving the league. The biggest one had White’s name on it, when Doty engineered a settlement between the players and the owners that paved the way for the current free agency system.

To this day, the conditions of that settlement are in place with Doty overseeing all NFL labor matters that come to the court. The collective bargaining agreement that expires Thursday night mirrors the settlement and a special master’s decision in the $4 billion fight over NFL TV revenue wound up before Doty earlier this month.

At a hearing last week, he tried to keep the tone in the room calm and light, greeting both sides as he recounted the history of NFL labor cases in front of him and remarked in particular about how long he’s known Jeffrey Kessler, a prominent attorney for the union, and Gregg Levy, the league’s lead attorney.

“We all think of ourselves as old friends, at least I do,” Doty said.

He complimented lawyers on each side for their thorough work at times and initiated playful banter about meeting the time limits on their arguments, pausing once to state his discomfort with watching PowerPoint presentations. Doty later quipped: “I’m one of those odd judges who still likes lawyers.”

Joe Friedberg, a prominent Twin Cities defense attorney, said he represented a man in a high-profile drug case in one of Doty’s first criminal cases. Friedberg said there was a rumor that his client had taken out a contract on Doty’s life, and the FBI let the judge know about the potential threat.

“When you know the judge has heard that, you really could expect some bad rulings,” Friedberg said. “I don’t think it impacted him at all. … (W)hen defendants walk out of there, they don’t walk out with the feeling the (son of a gun) was against me.”

Except when they are NFL owners, who have tried to get him removed from league cases a few times, including in 2008 when Doty ruled against the NFL and let quarterback Michael Vick keep more than $16 million in roster bonuses from the Atlanta Falcons. Doty ruled that Vick earned his bonuses before he was convicted of dogfighting charges and sentenced to prison. The ruling was upheld on appeal.

Late Tuesday, Doty backed the NFLPA in the dispute over the TV revenue that players argue was illegally collected by the owners as a war chest to survive a work stoppage. The judge’s 28-page ruling was simple and direct, concluding that the league had failed to meets its obligation to secure contracts favorable not to just to the NFL but its players.

NFL spokesman Greg Aiello declined to characterize the league’s current position on Doty’s jurisdiction.

“The court record of the past stands on its own,” Aiello said. “We have nothing to add at this time.”

Stephen Ross, director of the Penn State Institute for Sports Law, Policy, and Research, said he can see why the NFL wouldn’t want to argue in front of Doty. But he also said he doesn’t see Doty as biased.

“You have to distinguish between bias, which sounds illegitimate, and a judge’s rulings in the past that are not consistent to your approach to those things,” Ross said. “Doty believes in closely enforcing antitrust laws and that any restraints on players be justified as necessary for some demonstrated legitimate purposes. He has often found that restraints have not met that.”

A sword from his days with the Marines still hangs in Doty’s chambers, and he uses it to cut cake during an annual event celebrating the Corps’ birthday. He’s a proud Marine, but not an overbearing one.

“He mentions ordinarily to the lawyers and to the jury that he has a hearing problem that comes from being too close to artillery in Korea, which he does,” Friedberg said. “But he wears a hearing aid, I think, and he will pick up whispers that you don’t necessarily want him to hear.”

There is a chance Doty will wind up hearing more arguments between the NFL and its players in coming days and that his fingerprints will be on any new labor pact, whenever that is reached.

“I keep wondering when they’re going to put him into Canton,” Rosenbaum said. “He belongs in the Hall of Fame. He has been a major influence on a major sport for longer than any player who has ever played in the league. If there’s any conscience in this system, eventually they’re going to put him in the Hall.”